A Cornflower By Any Other Name

Call Me by Your Name is a 2017 film about a transient ephebophilic romantic entanglement between two diasporic Jews living in “northern Italy” (not otherwise specified) in the 1980s with a shared interest in European high culture and in the fact that they are both Jews. It is the type of premise that makes a typical person of These Circles™ apoplectic, and one could almost say that it was that, combined with simple curiosity, that made me watch it.

I am continually amazed by how many people flippantly throw about the term “paedophilia”. I recall Ryan Faulk remarking once that the word “racist” is useless because to brand someone with it tells one nothing about what he believes; it is used only to manipulate. Ditto here, it seems, when the younger person in the relationship is 17, which is fully four years removed from what clinicians would define as paedophilic territory. Equally amazing is how many people are saying, “But the age of consent in Italy is 14,” as if that even matters. Would this become a “paedophile movie” to these people if Italy’s age of consent were 18 in 1983?

Why Italy was chosen is indeed interesting (much of this may apply to the source material as much as the film) and segues into several other curious choices made in the film about what to show explicitly, implicitly, or not at all. Debates rage on whether Italy or Germany deserves to be called the heart of European civilisation, but it should be borne in mind that both are young countries, and the region of Italy in which the film is set was part of the same political entity as what is now called Germany for a significant chunk of its history. The two protagonists – Oliver (the man) and Elio (the teenager) – roundaboutly evoke these themes in a dialogue about classical composers, eg Bach (a German) and Busoni (an Italian).

If one draws a line, roughly, under Bologna, everything above is unambiguously white. Everything below is white too, but it is palpably not the same. Northern Italy is also the least Jewish part of the country, as Elio notes quite early on, to which Oliver says that he is from New England and is “used to being the odd Jew out.” Elio is plainly uncomfortable with his identity, which is one of the things that cause friction between the two at first. Oliver, though, is overbearingly confident and looks like a figure from a 50s film noir poster, just at the time America’s Anglo elite had begun its steady decline. One could easily believe that he was indeed a New Englander, and he spends most of his life absorbed in European cultural artefacts, but internally he cannot bring himself to abandon his apartness, his selectness, his (I dare say) chosenness. He also has five-pointed stars on his trainers, on which the camera at one point lingers for a few seconds – as if this were connected to the Star of David he wears on a discreet necklace. It is not, though. It really only puts one in mind, again, of old films, and of that place which is home to all things formless, superficial, and vacuous.

Elio is attracted to these qualities in Oliver, but when he tries imitating Oliver’s behaviour, wearing a Star of David round his own neck, it comes across as strange and hollow. His mother would apparently disapprove of it, because his family are “Jews of discretion”, but she never comments on it, which makes one wonder what was the point of even mentioning it in the first place.

Elio’s family, naturally, are odd. He sounds American. His mother and father sound English and American respectively, but it is still not clear. All of them speak at least four European languages, and they live in a bucolic Italian paradise, but it is apparently only one of their houses (do they have one for every season of the year?). They act almost as a mosaic arrangement of the clichés of European Jewry; deracination, neuroticism, feigning detachment from things.

Elio’s father, “Mr Perlman”, is an archaeologist, so the film is replete with discussion about classical antiquity, particularly their aesthetics. However, despite taking place in Italy, most of the names I remember hearing were Greek, which I found interesting because Greece had few settlements in that part of Italy – the northernmost outpost of Magna Graecia was at Adria, but it was very much an outlier. Mr Perlman waxes lyrical a few times in the film, the first time when he is showing Oliver a slideshow of classical statues and saying that they look as if they are “daring you to desire them”, at which Oliver gives a quizzical look. This comes on the heels of escalating tension between him and Elio – and afterward, his inhibitions seem to diminish. That is the explicit link to Hellenic pederasty. The implicit one is by far more interesting. Although both actors (Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet) are adult men, they could not have found two men who were more physically different. Hammer is above the 99th percentile in US male height and nearly as fetching as the Greek statues, whereas Chalamet is glabrous and gangling. Elio is at an ephebe’s age, more or less (he is played by Chalamet). He is cultured but rather unworldly and naive – and by the end of the film (like an eromenos, one is tempted to imagine), when he is inconsolably broken-hearted, one finally sees a change in his demeanour. By then he has come to terms with himself in multiple ways, not just with his incipient sexuality.

Neither one of these characters is straightforwardly gay; Elio has a girlfriend for the second half of the film with whom he copulates, and Oliver eventually ends up getting married. It is better this way, I think. If they were gay then their relationship would be that much less remarkable, since it would be the default for them both to be attracted to members of their own sex anyway. Since this is not the case, attention is drawn not to the same-sex nature of their attraction, but to everything else about them – their erudition, Oliver’s strange obsessiveness, etc. Oliver’s doctoral thesis, the reason he is staying with Elio’s family, remains a mystery except for the fact that he is assisting Elio’s father in some way, but that is never really explained either, and there are probably a load more things like that that I have missed. The performances of the two lead actors, who eat up >90% of the screen time, are among the most “real” I have ever seen in a film, and I do not recall any scenes that you would have to be gay to enjoy. There is also not a single histrionic outburst from anyone in the entire film about Elio and Oliver’s relationship, which stops it from falling into familiar(ly tedious and clichéd) territory, and Oliver even seems to remark on this towards the end when he says something to the effect of, “You are so lucky. My father would have had me carted off to a correctional facility.” In fact, the extent to which their relationship is even mentioned explicitly by any of the other characters is very limited even at the end.

So it’s worth watching, I think. But if you are the sort who would be put off by Robert Stark’s novel, this is probably not for you either.

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